Within moments of the start I find myself in a small cluster of a dozen or so runners at the front of the race. Several runners are taking “flyers”, where they push the pace hard for a couple minutes to enjoy being at the head of the race, but then quickly fade as showtime ends and their un-warmed up and fatigued bodies revolt at the idea of running hard for more than a few minutes. It’s hard not to want to follow the series of micro-surges, but I’m concerned about blowing up before the big climb. I try to ignore what’s going on around me and just run. I lock into a pace that feels a bit quick, but also feels manageable for the first 5K. Soon, I realize that I am alone at the front. It is quiet — very, very quiet.
Am I dreaming? Have I gone off-course? Where is everyone? I quickly look back just to make sure that the field of 750 runners is really behind me. Behind me — unreal. What an odd site — the entire race behind me and a huge, sandy, and desolate climb ahead. Suddenly, the silence is interrupted by the sound of a helicopter ripping through the sky. It’s flying low and sideways to capture video footage of this long line of runners snaking across the desert. I struggle to control my emotions as my mind begins to process what is happening. Keep it together Jeff — keep it together.
We hit the base of the climb and two runners pass me. I decide not to chase, although I feel a slight sense of panic that after these two pass me, the rest of the field will follow — swallowing me up like a cycling peloton reels in the breakaway cyclist moments before reaching the finish line. Am I falling apart — self-destructing at the start of this climb? A third runner passes — a Moroccan with a low number (top 10). He looks elite – almost certainly a professional distance runner. I decide that I’m OK with him passing me – he’s in a different league. He speaks to me in French and then broken English. He’s telling me to follow him. I stay on his heels through the steep climb, first up rock, then soft sand. The pace is brutal for such a steep slope. His running looks effortless. I’m hurting and struggled to hold his pace. When it’s too steep to run, we speed-hike and scramble. I trip on a rocky section that feels more like mountaineering than trail running. My hand makes contact with a sharp rock edge, tearing the flesh between my fingers. A bleeding hand and max heart rate takes its toll and I lose my drive to stay with the Moroccan. He drops me. The final stretch of the climb is so steep and exposed that a fixed rope is installed. I grab the rope and scramble the final meters, yelling in a primal tone when I reach the top. I’ve somehow met the first challenge of the day in the top-5. This isn’t possible.
With my Moroccan friend now out-of-sight on the downhill side, I sprint over the pass and start threading my way down a fairly technical descent. It’s time to take some chances to gain time on those less comfortable in the mountains (or perhaps more sensible than I am!). After months of training in the Alps to go hard on the downhills and years of loving my play-time in the mountains, I’m feeling pretty comfortable going for it on the descent. In a special zone, I take in the beauty and energy of the mountains around me and my feet seem to land in all the right spots. I enter a narrow gorge — boulders are all around and the terrain alternatives between rocky steps and sandy patches. I nearly lose my balance on a loose rock. This scares me — had I fallen, chances are that the surrounding rocks would have won out over my skull.
I’m soon out of the gorge and onto the flats, having passed one runner on the descent. I feel great — knee pain is mostly gone and the heat is OK. I turn on my iPod at this point, hoping that I’ll have enough battery power to keep high energy tunes pumping for another 9-10 hours. I reach the first check point, unscrewing my water bottle caps while still running to save time. The officials punch my water ration card – I quickly re-fill my bottles and take off — not wanting to waste any time. For the first time in my life I feel like I’m really racing.
Run 9 minutes – walk 1 minutes: Terrain-permitting, I stick to this routine. During each walk break, I stay very busy. It’s all about self-care. At the walk breaks I alternate between taking salt tablets, mixing energy drink or Nuun in my water bottles, and eating. When the minute expires, it’s back to running. A few guys pass me during my walk breaks — it kills me. I want to abandon my walk breaks and give chase, but patience and great coaching prevail. I stick to my race plan.
For the next several hours I run alone, only seeing a few runners in front and a few behind. The field is quite spread out at this point, as the opening climb served to shatter many a body and psyche. Plus, it’s starting to get warm — very, very warm.
I enter a dunes section and pull out my compass to navigate. I see three sets of footprints in the sand in one direction and three in another. I’m apparently in 7th position now. I’m careful with how I place my feet on the surface of the dunes. (If you land with a flat foot, you often can get away with a quasi-normal stride and prevent the energy-draining and dreaded sinking of your foot when you break through the surface.) Suddenly, I lose the footprints in front as well as any sense of other runners near me. I briefly consider backtracking, but decide that I don’t want to risk the time loss. I push through, following a rough compass heading. Ten minutes later I exit the dunes into a vast expanse. I’ve reached a wide valley and I have no idea which way to go. I consider pulling out my roadbook to look up the heading, but decide to take one minute to breathe deep (don’t panic Jeff) and look for clues.
There — a reflection. Several kilometers away I see the sunlight glimmer off of a support vehicle. Within another 10 minutes I’m back on course. This little mistake cost me some time, but I can’t worry about this now. I’m just happy that I didn’t get myself really lost out here.
My legs are feeling fine and the heat is bearable. I’m not running fast, but I’m staying consistent and somehow fending off the field of runners that I’ve been expecting would swallow me up for half a day now. Following the third checkpoint I reach another significant climb. I power-walk it and reach one of the most beautiful ridge lines I’ve ever seen. I regret not having my camera handy, but not enough to take the time to retrieve it from my pack. The route follows the ridge line to a scenic perch and then drops down a steep sandy section. I’m feeling really slow on this stretch, but perhaps the others are as well, because no one seems to be gaining on me. The sandy descent ends in a very long off-camber traverse through soft sand. It becomes extremely uncomfortable to run with my feet at such an odd angle. Only occasionally do I get decent purchase on the sand. My ankles are flexed and compressed at their extremes. Dig deep, find inner strength.
The traverse spills out into a long, relatively flat section heading into the salt flats. Through the occasional sandy section, I can find only 6 sets of foot prints as I lay down the seventh. In the distance I finally spot two runners and soon gain on them. They are walking, presumably on a quick walk break. I expect them to re-pass me any moment, but refuse to turn my head to check on their progress.
I enter checkpoint 5 in 5th place. It’s getting really hot. I fill my bottles and then douse my face with part of my second 1.5L bottle. I see a photographer jump in front of me to snap some shots.
Within seconds I’m running again. I feel that I’m running on borrowed time — that any minute reality will return and I’ll find myself in 400th place — comfy in the middle of the pack where I’ve always been. I see a runner ahead walking off to the side of the road, apparently with stomach problems. It’s my elite Moroccan friend from the first climb. He loses his lunch, but restarts his progress soon after I pass. His gazelle-like stride is gone and now he’s walking for the finish line. I motor on, wondering if a stomach ailment will hit me as well before the day is over.
I soon enter a special Zen-like zone. I put all of my thoughts and energy into thinking about my dedication for this stage — to all who have supported my charity drive for ING Chances for Children and UNICEF. I envision the face of each person who has donated and each person who has sent me notes of encouragement to the Bivouac. I think of the children in Brazil, India, and Ethiopia who will receive the fruits of such generosity. I feel an enormous surge of strength from these thoughts. An hour passes to my surprise and suddenly I’m arriving at another checkpoint. At this moment I realize that I may be able to finish within 10 hours. This just isn’t logical.
I return to my focus zone and try to ignore the heat which the last checkpoint reported had topped 50C/122F. I enter another section with soft sand and an uneven surface. I feel like an underdog boxer in a late round just trying to hold on for survival. I stumble often, but manage each time to catch my balance before hitting the ground. Regardless of what’s happening with my feet and balance, I keep pushing through — driving my legs forward like a diesel engine. I see another runner ahead and soon pass him on a short uphill section.
- I’m now in third place with 10K to go.
- I left the start line 8 hours ago.
- It’s still daylight, but the sun is starting its fall, right over where I think the starting line rests.
- This is not real – this doesn’t happen to a regular guy.
I reach into my front pack for one last gel, but sadly there is nothing there. I could use some nutrition to get me through this last hour – oh well! My thoughts of food are interrupted when I see another runner ahead — he’s walking. I reach him and notice he’s another member of the Moroccan contingent. He’s mixing an energy drink. I pass him thinking that the moment he finishes his ‘dinner’, he’ll speed past me.
The sun is low in the sky and burning straight into my eyes. My knee is hurting again and I’m slightly dizzy. The hours of running alone and the intense heat are getting to me. I need strength — I need support. I begin a series of visualizations — not quite hallucinations, but not far off either! I see my friend Sean directly in front of me, turning around to look me in the eye every 30 seconds to tell me to stay strong and stay with him. I then see my family off to one side and my friends off to the other. They form a long line, reaching the way out into the desert. They take turns running by my side, telling me to keep pushing hard for the finish line. My wife, my parents and in-laws, my grandmothers, my sister –my coach, my colleagues, my friends, my boss — they all have a moment to share a cheer or a look of encouragement. My late granddad appears to tell me to “stay tough, boy – stay tough”. My body is spent and my mind is at its limit. Everything hurts, but I’m filled with an enormous energy and waves of emotion that are surging me to the finish.
The finish line finally comes into view. I’m running on fumes. This is not how I envisioned finishing this stage. It’s not dark. There aren’t hundreds of runners ahead of me. With only one set of footprints between me and the finish line, from a mystery runner that I never saw, I push and push and push myself to run as hard as possible to the end of the stage. Tears fill my eyes when I see a fairly large crowd gathered at the finish. I make once last glance back, as if expecting 500 runners to suddenly pass me, and see only an empty desert. I launch myself across the finish line to the sounds of cheers. As I’m gasping for air and trying to make sense of what has just happened, a camera crew jumps in front of me, asking in French and then English how I feel and what it was like out there. I can’t speak – my emotions are stretched to their limits along with the rest of me. I manage to state that it was the hardest thing I’ve ever done and that it was a surreal and beautiful experience. This is the most glorious moment of my sporting life. I’m dazed. My eyes are still filled with tears as I’m handed my evening ration of 4.5L of water and walk off on my own.
I’m suddenly pulled aside as I’m walking to my tent. It’s a race official and she’s instructing me to go to a special tent, where my equipment will be inspected. I’m confused by this request. I ask her why. She says that they have to ensure that the top runners have all required equipment, including the minimum food levels per day. As we walk to the tent I try to explain that I’m not a top runner. I explain that I was in the main field, not the elite 50 that started later. She says “I know, but you came in second in the main field and your time was fast overall. Now, let’s make sure that you have your compulsory gear.” Once in the tent, I drop to the ground and start unpacking my backpack. I’m able to quickly find my compass, anti-venom pump, signal mirror, etc., but have a moment of panic when I can’t find my lighter — not being able to show it would have cost me a time penalty, which could have easily wiped out my hard work in the stage today. I find the lighter finally and prove that I have the minimum food levels for the remaining stages. With this unexpected inspection passed, I stumble toward my tent and make the following audio recording that I believe captures the emotions and experience of the day very well.
Later I send an update to Becky and she posts to the blog. (It may be interesting to read it again after knowing the full story.)
With my endorphin high starting to wane, I begin to feel the pain in my feet, knee, and well .. everywhere else. Within moments of collapsing in my tent, I’m shivering, so I cover up in my sleeping bag and try to make a recovery drink. Darkness arrives and my tentmate (who had exited the race, but will be back in 09!) shows up in shock that I’ve finished already. She helps sort out a tent snafu with the race officials that involved me having to move tents during this tough recovery window and then helps me prepare a cold freeze-dried meal – yum. I manage to eat this not so great meal, desperate to get the calories in my body, and soon enter one of my worst nights of so-called sleep ever. My legs alternate between shaking and aching all night as I go through periods of shivering in the cold and sweating as if it were still mid-day.
When I learn of the final stage results in the morning, I’m in shock — 2nd place in the main field and 24th overall when factoring in the elite group. I ran my heart out for 9 hours and 2 minutes, proving to every middle- and back-of-the-packer out there that anything is possible and that you should never, ever accept that your limits and your potential are fixed.
Thanks for reading, my friends. Stay tuned for “The Relentless, Arduous Push to the Finish”.
Jeff Grant is the author of Flow State Runner: Activate a Powerful Inner Coach’s Voice, Hill Running: Survive & Thrive, Run Faster: Unlock Your Speed in 8 Weeks, Running Heavy, and UltraRunning: Coach’s Handbook. Based in Switzerland, Jeff is a coach and writer who specializes in mental coaching, peak performance, and transformation. Jeff’s popular newsletter is a digest containing inspirational and instructional resources, including his latest content. See recent issues and subscribe for free here. Refer to Jeff’s bio for more information, and please check out Jeff’s Coach & Author page on Facebook.